The US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] voted unanimously [press release, PDF] on Thursday to implement the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act [S 1789 materials], which brings the sentences for crack cocaine more in line for those of powder cocaine. The retroactive sentencing will go into effect with the law on November 1, unless Congress acts to stop the USSC's decision by then. The USSC estimates that this will affect the sentences of 12,000 federal inmates. However, the decision does not mean that all prior offenders will be eligible for reduced sentences. It will still be up to a federal sentencing judge to determine whether the particular offender is eligible based on a consideration of many factors, including whether releasing the offender would harm to public safety. Judge Patti B. Saris said:
The Commission is aware of concern that today's actions may negatively impact public safety. However, every potential offender must have his or her case considered by a federal district court judge in accordance with the Commission's policy statement, and with careful thought given to the offender's potential risk to public safety. The average sentence for a federal crack cocaine offender will remain significant at about 127 months.The decision is identical to the position taken by US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website], who testified [text, PDF; JURIST report] before the USSC in June.
The Fair Sentencing Act amended existing law to reduce the current sentencing ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. Under the existing law passed in 1986, an individual possessing five grams of crack cocaine would receive a mandatory five-year prison sentence, while an individual possessing powder cocaine would need to have 100 times that amount to receive the same sentence. President Barack Obama signed [JURIST report] the Fair Sentencing Act into law last year. Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] praised [press release] the bill's passage, stating that the old law also created a racial disparity, with African Americans comprising 79.8 percent of all offenders sentenced for crack cocaine violations. In April 2008, a study released by the USSC reported that more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses had their sentences reduced [JURIST report] under an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines [materials]. In 2007, the USSC voted unanimously [JURIST report] to give retroactive effect to an earlier sentencing guideline amendment that reduced crack cocaine penalties.